July 28th, 2013
08:56 AM ET

What we learned about Pope Francis in Brazil

By John L. Allen Jr., CNN

Rio de Janeiro (CNN) - We didn’t need Pope Francis’ trip to Brazil this week to grasp that the new pontiff, who’s set a tone of simplicity and love for ordinary people, is a hit.

Polls around the world show approval ratings that would be the envy of any politician or celebrity, while vast crowds show up in Rome for even his most routine activities.

What Brazil confirmed, perhaps, is that his act plays as well on the road as at home.

During his week in Brazil for World Youth Day, an international Catholic event, mob scenes erupted everywhere Francis went, despite cold temperatures and driving rain for much of the week.

On Monday, frenzied admirers almost hijacked his motorcade. On Wednesday a group of nuns shrieked and rushed the pope like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert, and on Thursday  he drew more than a million young people to a worship service on Rio’s Copacabana Beach. A Saturday prayer service drew 3 million people, according to organizers.

At one point, Francis greeted 30,000 young Argentines in town for World Youth Day, a gathering that turned this city into a virtual Argentinian colony. Given the fierce national rivalry between the two countries, one local pundit said that under any other circumstances, the presence of so many screaming Argentines in the streets of Rio would have been considered an act of war.

Beyond that, here are four things we learned about Pope Francis from his week in Brazil:

A sedate charisma

Francis was elected at 76, so he doesn’t exude the animal magnetism of the early John Paul II, the last pope to command this kind of popular affection.

Elected at 58, John Paul delivered dramatic gestures like the actor he once was. For instance, he would kiss the ground of whatever country he was visiting, something Francis didn’t do. John Paul would clap and stomp his feet during musical numbers, and at night he would pop out the window of his residence to tell jokes and boom out one-liners.

Francis has a more sedate charisma, allowing his smile, his genuine delight in meeting people, and his homespun wisdom to do the work.

During a visit to a Rio slum, for instance, he said the poor are often the most generous folk, quoting a Latin American proverb: “You can always add more water to the beans.”

Francis may be a rock star, in other words, but not the “pump up the volume” sort. Think Simon and Garfunkel, not the Rolling Stones – or maybe Taylor Swift, not Lady Gaga.

He’s changed the storyline

If proof were needed of how much Francis has changed the storyline about the Catholic Church, consider that he’d been in the global spotlight for five days by the time Friday night rolled around, and no one had even raised the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals until he did so himself.

Speaking at the end of a procession recalling Jesus’ carrying of the Cross, Francis said Jesus is united with all who suffer, including those who “have lost their faith in the church, or even in God, because of the lack of consistency of Christians and ministers of the gospel.”

Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a veteran of the Church’s struggles with the abuse scandals who was in Rio for the pope’s visit, said the scandals were “an aspect” of what Francis had in mind.

The veiled reference was a reminder of how much the scandals have hurt the Church. Yet the fact that they didn’t cloud Francis’ trip, as they likely would have for a different pope, was also a lesson in how much Francis has given the Church a new lease on life.

A savvy politician

Heading into the trip, there was fear that Brazil’s massive street protests in June might reignite. Aside from a few scattered incidents, that didn’t happen, and Francis seemed to navigate artfully though the political shoals.

The “Pope of the Poor” repeatedly called for greater attention to the needy, and on several occasions applauded the thirst for justice among young people.

During his visit to a Rio slum, he said that no “pacification” campaign can succeed without addressing the social conditions that breed misery – an indirect slap at recent crackdowns on violence in the slums by local police.

At the same time, Francis didn’t embarrass his hosts. He was gracious with Brazil’s embattled president, Dilma Rousseff. He dropped by Rio de Janeiro’s city palace on Thursday to pray over the flags for the 2016 Olympics, meaning that organizers can literally claim a papal blessing against complaints that splashy events such as the Olympics and the World Cup are a waste of money.

In the end, Francis offered a little something for everyone, without blurring his central message expressed in the slum visit: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need.”

Energizer Bunny of a Pope

Finally, we learned that despite his advanced age, Francis has a seemingly boundless reserve of energy.

Even before he left Rome, he had trimmed the two days of rest planned for Benedict XVI to one, adding a 150-mile outing to Aparecida, Brazil, on Wednesday to visit a famed Marian shrine, and later in the day stopping by a Rio hospital that treats alcohol and drug addicts.

On the plane en route to Brazil, he stood for an hour to chat with each journalist covering the trip, then spent the rest of the flight talking to his Vatican aides and making notes. A spokesman said nap time had been planned for the pope, but he never used it.

Even on his alleged day off on Tuesday, Francis kept at it. He held a business meeting with a cardinal from Honduras, Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who’s in charge of a new council of eight cardinals from around the world helping the pope with Vatican reform.

At one stage, a Vatican spokesman confessed, “I’m happy we’re halfway through, because if [the trip] were any longer I’d be destroyed.”

Despite the grueling pace, Francis seemed as fresh at the end as at the beginning. Nor will things slow down anytime soon, since he’s already announced that he won’t take the usual papal break in August, but will stay on the job in Rome.

The “Energizer bunny” aspect of his personality should serve Francis well, because his bravura performance in Brazil notwithstanding, the Vatican is not going to reform itself.

John L. Allen Jr. is CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Brazil • Catholic Church • Pope Francis

soundoff (493 Responses)
  1. omgamike

    Though I do not believe in any organized religion, I do consider myself a spiritual person. I just think that if there is a higher power somewhere in this universe, we don't need organized religion to pay homage to it. We need neither churches nor pastors/priests/rabbis. But I do see that the Catholic Church has a Pope who appears to be a good man, with a good heart, who actually cares for the poor and the needy.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • manangdi22

      I like organized something including religion. There is strength in numbers, there is someone you are accountable for, someone who will tell you if you are going the wrong way, someone keeping me grounded, someone who will tell me honestly if I am being an arrogant selfish person. The Pope is a symbol of solidarity that in which we can do good things in the world if we gather together. It says in the bible, when there is one or two gathered, I am there. God maybe present with us all the time but I think that belonging to a group makes it easier to follow him. Even in Maslow's hierarchy of needs one fundamental need is to belong ... to something. I am able to keep my faith because I know that I belong to a community who keeps me ground, even If that community Is not perfect!

      July 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  2. Robert

    The pope's appeal: Slightly less awful than Benedict.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Andy

      So true.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  3. SteveinMN

    We've learned he looks DISTURBINGLY like Rudy Giuliani....

    July 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • Phill

      He is rudy's twin brother

      July 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • moas786

      no rudy g. was a 2 bid liar....

      July 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  4. tango

    One notable difference between this Pope and at least the previous two ones is that this one was having Mass and talking to people on regular basis just days before he became Pope. To me, who had the opportunity of talking to him while he was still a priest in Buenos Aires, he is not someone up there and unreachable like the other Popes.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  5. Phill

    Why this so anti-catholic nation is so obsessed with the pope?

    July 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Masses

      He's interesting. Most Catholics are not.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
      • wanfuforever

        Said the person who clearly does not know one Catholic.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
        • Masses

          born and raised friend! Finally severed ties after 27 years, 11 years free and clear of that ignorant opiate of stupidity! 🙂

          July 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
      • One hand clapping

        but he is still the figure head of a really really really stupid belief system. I mean why on Earth would humans spend so much time dwelling upon man made deities? Oh that's right, they think they get something out of it (palm slap to forehead) how could we forget about the promise of a soul and an afterlife of trillions of years in bliss? Just wait until it is "proven" that there really are 14 universes, I'll be the Christ god made those too! LOL!

        July 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
        • lionlylamb

          Let's review Cosmologies shall we..? Just exactly how many Big Bangs will it take to fill up the Cosmos with X-number amounts of Big Bang created universes..? My best guess as to the numbers would be that there would be as many cells in a human body to be equal with the amount of Big Bangs needed to establish the zillions of universes created out of zillions of Big Bang beginnings... Your stopping to count but only 14 is somewhat redundantly mundane...

          July 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
        • lionlylamb


          July 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
      • Phill

        Seems to me that you just follow the same ignorant opiate of stupidity you criticize.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  6. Dan

    Does anyone else think he's nude under there?

    July 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • the pope's borther

      Yup..red briefs..matching the red pope shoes.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
      • M.R.


        July 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Ultimately, yes, Dan... aren't you? Aren't we all?

      I can't imagine why this would interest you, unless you are a 9 year-old who snickers and giggles at the thought of "nude" or "naked".

      July 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
      • manangdi22

        Because they are perverts!

        July 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
      • Edna

        I was wondering too, simply because sometimes I go shopping in a long robe, and take a wee bit of pleasure out of the fact that I am free and clear underneath and nobody knows 🙂

        July 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  7. fatdogtavern

    I am an atheist and I like this guy.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Masses


      July 28, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Dave

      I went through the whole rigmarole to get confirmed because my wife wanted me to, but I've considered myself a Buddhist since I was 13. The Catholic rituals are kind of interesting and I liked the priest who confirmed me. This pope reminds me of that priest–a genuinely humble man who cares about people.

      July 28, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  8. Whoville

    I'm not a theist or even a deist and I actually "hate" the Christ religions for all their lies and made up nonsense. But...I do like this guy 🙂 And its not like the atheists are out there feeding the poor and helping the masses. Too bad organized religion does it based on false gods and the lie of Humans having a soul/afterlife etc

    July 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • wanfuforever

      Well, we are but our charities don't get as much press nor are as well-funded. But we are trying to make a difference.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • loki Tipan

      Really? That's how they have that pimped out Vatican city! from all the money they spend on the poor. What a joke

      July 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  9. lionlylamb

    Idolatry liberated and freedom's causations to amorously behold such a godhead called the Pope shows quite pluralistically how manhood and womanhood needs as physical resemblance of godliness to so embellish upon in their midst of living hungers that might only be quenched with spiritualism's audaciousness...

    July 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      July 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • wanfuforever

      Wow, someone's discovered a dictionary!

      July 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  10. Tyler

    The Church is not perfect because man is not perfect. But before you throw stones at Catholics, ask yourselves, does your religion feed the poor and homeless by the millions on a daily basis? Does your church feed the starving and protect the weak? Live by the Golden Rule always, and know God gave us liberty to know what a rule even is.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • Masses

      ...and of course there is no god, that always throws a monkey wrench into things. When death comes, sleep well, you won't be waking up anywhere ever again 🙂

      July 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  11. ruffle

    I'm not a catholic, but I do see this guy as a great leader and unifying figure for his people. I hope he'll live a long time and succeed in his endeavors.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  12. Bill

    Not too many rock stars could attract over a million young people for a day at the beach in cold wet weather. Very impressive...good for you Pope Francis..

    July 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  13. Patines

    The propaganda of the catholic church has target the nation with the largest population of believers (Brazil). This nation has also one of the largest illiteracy population in the world. Even though that his approach to deal with the crisis of the body that he represent is remarkable the truth is that the cc is gone to a place that has not return.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  14. Bdot

    The pope is nothing more than the mascot of a corrupt religion.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • Brian Schaeffer


      July 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • kelly

      Over a billion Catholics would disagree with you. So this new pope is popular with Catholics, why do you even care? No one is forcing you to be Catholic so move along.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • john martin

      Myself and my family will pray for you and the rest of the non believer. May Jesus have mercy on your soul.

      July 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  15. mary

    Pope Francis gives me hope for the Church, but only if those around him let him reform. Time will tell, but he will need lots of prayers to succeed and someone watching his back. Pray God will do that.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Huh

      I prayed to 14 gods today, I'm doing more than you!

      July 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  16. A Dose of Reality

    What we learned about Pope Francis in Brazil
    hmmmm,He's another religitard in a funny hat? He sits in control of one of the wealthiest cities in the world but wants the rest of us to help the needy? That he is in charge of one of the MOST corrupt organizations known to man?
    No, we didn't learn that, we already knew it. thanks anyway.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • mikeinmiami

      Well said. I agree on all counts.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • KidIndigo

      No, he's a good man with a good soul and a good message. Far better, I suspect, than you. You want equality? Really? Move to India or China and live impoverished, as THAT is the reality. Not going to give up your middle class, USA life (which, really, you only got because of happenstance/luck, not YOUR efforts)? Then please, enjoy your lottery win, and shut up. Francis is trying to improve the world. You are just taking up space. Move along.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • kelly

      Did you know the Church is also the largest charitable organization in the world? Here at home only the federal government gives more services to the needy. Look it up before you throw stones.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
      • Richard Cranium

        The charity should be much more effective. Which is better? To teach people how not to spread diseases, or to treat the disease? When someone gets HIV/Aids in Africa, they can get some treatment, with their sermon. Why don't they work on prevention rather than throwing the money down an infinite well?

        July 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  17. Joe Nobody

    I always wonder if Pope always wear underwear under the robe?

    July 28, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  18. JEM

    At a time when right wingers are spouting such hate (but claiming to be Christian), it is refreshing to see a religious leader who actually tries to emulate Christ and to follow his teaching.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  19. John

    That his real name isn't Francis?

    July 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  20. wordclock

    Is it just me or is does it show a major lack of faith to ride around behind a bullet proof bubble?

    July 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • leonardo

      3,2 Millions peoples


      July 28, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • lionlylamb


        July 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Leslie B.

      It's just you. Having faith in God doesn't mean you don't look both ways before crossing the street.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • manangdi22

      FYI, this Pope is riding in an open car, did you see it? Google didn't tell you that he rides an open top car? You probably didn't, you just came by this article and posted your thoughts. And yes, as a security detail of the Pope, I will suggest that he ride a bullet proof car!

      July 28, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • Theresa 1958

      To be fair – and i am not a fan of ANY religion, he did try to go out and about in a regular car. That proved to be a bad idea so he was forced into a "pope mobile".

      July 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.